September 3, 2005
A Speck in Katrina's Eye
by Will Durst
Hard to fathom the chaos I'm seeing on my TV, soggy but safely ensconced here at my Dad's house in Milwaukee. A wrung out speck of comic detritus lucky to have dodged the wrath of Katrina's Eye. And a mite sheepish. Always told anyone who bothered to listen I wanted to experience a Hurricane, but then, when the chance finally came, I hiked up my skirts and ran like a little school girl. And I am extremely glad I did.
My scheduled two dates last weekend were going to be a working vacation with the emphasis on the drinking like a fish part. Working on Saturday at Martine's, a club in Metairie, and then the House of Blues Parish Room (little venue -- seats about 240) in New Orleans on Sunday. Followed by a flight out of Armstrong International to Milwaukee to see my Dad Monday morning. Cue ominous music.
After landing Friday night, the joke was the damn Hurricane was going to screw up not just the whole town but our shows as well. We would make a fortune with our "Dive the French Quarter" t-shirts, featuring a logo of a tiny floating scuba diver holding a hurricane glass. Easy less than a 1% chance of it ever happening kind of laughter. Saturday morning the chuckles started to stick in our throats like a canape made out of sawdust. Katrina stubbornly refused to veer off and wimp out like all New Orleanians distractedly assumed she would. People exhausted from evacuating Hurricanes that had never come. Who had heard the weathermen cry "Chicken Little" too many times: twice last year and twice the year before. People suffering from a serious case of Hurricane Fatigue.
But that didn't factor into our thinking. We were just comics trying to salvage a gig (me and Bill Dykes, the producer/comic who booked the mini tour,) so we spent an hour haranguing the general manager of the HOB, that "the show must go on."
"How bad can it be?"
"We'll just work for the waiters and service staff of the clubs in the Quarter. The ones who can't leave. Screw the tourists. It'll be therapeutic. Besides, she's not supposed to hit till Monday."
Corporate fiscal sense prevailed in his decision to close the whole joint after Sunday's Gospel Brunch and he only kept that open because it had pretty much sold out. As for us, he really didnt have any choice since most of his staff had already called in reporting they were getting the hell out of Dodge. Then the Gulf casinos announced they were closing at 2am Sunday morning. Casinos closing. Not a good sign. Huge corporations turning away free money. If there were a canary in the coal mine of a Hurricane scare, this had to be it.
Bill and I went shopping in a semi frenzied grocery store (shared chagrined grimaces as we showed up at the cart at the same time from different directions with arms full of bottled water- and a couple of six packs and Doritos.) A quick nap and we headed out to Martine's in Metairie which is a weekly one nighter hosted by comic Jodi Borrello in a suburb about 10 miles west of town. She was excited, as we were scheduled to sell out the 100 seat room. Scheduled being the operative word here. 10 pm rolls around and 9 people showed up. 9. Count em. Oh, I did. Mostly Jodis family. Great show anyway. For the 9 people. Borrello-Dykes-Durst. Lots of weathermen-Hurricane-natural disaster jokes as one might imagine. Lots of nervous laughter as one might also imagine.
Afterwards, the entire Borrello krewe laid rubber steaming directly from the show to higher ground in Opelousas near Lafayette. Bill and I commenced to perform what must be the norm when you think of preparing for the worst impending natural disaster in our nation's history -- a tour of the French Quarter.
The streets were dead -- no, really dead. Not Quarter dead. Rhinelander, Wisconsin week after New Year's dead. Boarded up dead. Eerie dead. Neon signs advertising "Hurricanes" lit above the makeshift plywood shutters dead. A few bars open. We hit "Mimi's" in the Marigny for a quick bite right before they boarded up. In answer to the question that opened each casual meeting: "You staying?" the answer was invariably "no." EVERYONE was leaving.
Dave at "d.b.a.," a club on Frenchman, who had ridden out every Hurricane in memory, (a Big Easy badge of honor worn with pride) said HE was splitting. And I saw Bill's internal engine hum "hmmm." There was a lot of rationalizing going on involving the kids/ pets thing, but the media scare job was working. All the TVs in the city were switching between The Weather Channel's trajectory of doom and the 24 Hour Hurricane Watch on the local affiliates which focused on the traffic jams from hell retreating from the Gulf. The general consensus was "Leave or Die! No, really! Were not kidding this time!"
Driving down Decatur street. Nothing, not a thing open, at all... except Molly's, but thats to be expected. Nobody walking. Only us driving. Not even any cops. Plenty of parking spots. Not a good thing exponential factor five. Finally saw some life up near Canal at Lounge Lizards where "Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes" were wailing away to an almost full house including the Mardi Gras and a Half Girls dressed mostly in white feathers and boas. People milling on the sidewalk outside drinking out of to-go cups. Ahhh, semi- normality. Stayed till three.
Not wishing to openly reveal my weenie doubts about riding it out, I had earlier surreptitiously inquired as to changing my Monday flight to Sunday, but United laughed "hah hah hah hah hah," so I made online reservations with Hertz for a Sunday morning pick-up, and this allowed me to sleep the slumber of the stupid thinking: "if Katrina veers off before i wake up-i'll stay; if she threatens to pummel-I'll drive out; no problem." God laughs.
By dawn Sunday, Katrina had ramped up to category 5 which had everybody shaking like a shaved kitten on a frozen lake. Olden timey weatherman visibly sweating with their sleeves rolled up on the TV. Only 2 category 5s have EVER EVER hit the mainland of the US. EVER, and the New Orleans Superdome is crosshaired directly in the middle of Katrina's unerring greenish blue eye. I call Hertz. They joined United and god in their laughing. "Ha ha ha ha ha -- oh I'm sorry sir, that location has been evacuated and the staff escaped in the dead of night." What about me? I could have taken one of your precious cars to high land you silly person. "Click." The airport is closed. I compile a list of my luggage I really NEED to leave with. A couple of vests and my laptop are the only finalists.
I don't know what convinces BIll to borrow an ex roommate's car and drive me out; a sense of duty, the impending doom, some suspicion my wife will hunt him down and eat his entrails if I die. But we split around 11:30 in a 95 Honda Accord with 84000 miles on it, which needs gas and air in all its tires. Gulp. First we stop at his place and try to convince his present roommate Maggie (no -- just roommates) to join our frantic exodus but as an artist she's worried about her pieces and vows to shepherd them through hell and high water. She kisses us off waving a double tall Jack and Coke.
We flee the city through the back roads -- Magazine to River Road to Jefferson Highway to Williams catching up with I-10. Our plan is to head west to Houston where Bill lived and has friends and family. And I'll fly out or something. Just AWAY is what counts right now. AWAY from Katrina the bitch. Houston is normally a five and a half hour drive. Takes us that long to crawl twenty miles. Stuck on the Spillway for over an hour not moving at all. Much bathroom activity improvisation ensues.
Against our will we get shunted north on I- 55 when we'd rather continue west on 1- 10 and fifteen hours after leaving the third world nation with OSHA standards that is New Orleans we plop down on a pair of soft sweet double beds at the Memphis Hilton. Even with gas station coffee and adrenaline shooting through our veins like the first pressings of a Kentucky meth lab, we immediately pass out as the fingertips of Katrina reach out to us via a muted CNN. And that's how we escaped. And I thank god we did and hope we can return someday to even a semblance of the city we left. May God watch over you New Orleans. And please survive, so we can come back and help drink your economy back to health.
Political Comic Will Durst is wearing a stained Bourbon Street t-shirt.
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Will Durst is America's premier political comedian. He writes "comedy for people who read, or know someone who does." For more on Will, visit his web site.